Since the first tree fell across a stream and made it easier to get to the other side, bridges have been a vital part of life. Through the centuries, bridges have gotten more sophisticated and complex, with soaring spans going higher and farther than ever. But few structures can compare with bridges for drama, intrigue, and danger. Here are a few bridges and the surprising stories behind them.

It’s not London Bridge and it’s not falling down

Some have called Tower Bridge in London the most famous bridge in the world. People in Brooklyn and San Francisco might not agree with that claim, but there is no doubt that the Tower Bridge is one of the world’s most recognizable sights, as well as one of the most photographed. Many people confuse Tower Bridge with London Bridge, a much less distinctive design. There was a rumor, later disproved, that when Robert McCulloch purchased the old London Bridge for shipment to Lake Havasu, Arizona, he mistakenly thought he was buying Tower Bridge.


Tower Bridge in 1910

The most memorable aspect of the Tower Bridge, of course, is its towers supporting the drawbridge sections. (The Tower Bridge is usually called a bascule bridge, especially in the UK, and a drawbridge in the US. Both terms refer to a bridge with movable sections that lift to allow traffic through.) The towers, and in fact the bridge itself is done in Victorian style, with elaborate  stonework, turrets, and church-like ornamentation. The bridge was constructed between 1886 and 1894, and some accounts claim that the Victorian architecture of Tower Bridge was intended to honor Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Other accounts claim that the style was imposed on the designers by the City of London in order to make the bridge harmonize with the nearby Tower of London, although the much older Tower of London can hardly be called Victorian. Whatever the real reason for the Victorian design of Tower Bridge, there is no doubt that the bridge would be a lot less memorable with a plainer design.

But that is almost what happened.

The original design was the result of a contest with 50 entries. The winner was the design submitted by Sir Horace Jones, who was the city engineer at the time, as well as one of the contest judges! The design submitted by Jones featured plain brick piers., but Jones died a year after construction began and the work was taken over by George Stevenson. Stevenson replaced the plain pier design with the Victorian Gothic edifice we see today. Thanks, George!

Like some other iconic but unusual structures such as the Eiffel Tower, the bridge was not universally popular at first. H.H. Statham complained that “It represents the vice of tawdriness and pretentiousness….”, while Frank Bangwyn sniffed that “A more absurd structure has never been thrown across a strategic river.” Most of the residents, however, loved the bridge from the beginning.  The elevated pedestrian walkway between the towers, however, was somewhat less successful. It was seldom used by regular pedestrians due to the stairs required to access it and became known as a place for pickpockets and prostitutes. As a result, the walkway was closed in 1910 and finally reopened (with elevator access) in 1982.

As a landmark in the middle of a large city, the Tower Bridge has attracted its share of incidents. In 1968, an RAF pilot flew a jet under the walkway as an unauthorized,  one-man salute to the RAF’s 50th birthday. He was arrested and discharged from the RAF. Eleven years later, a stockbroker’s clerk, on bail for accusations of fraud, flew a single engine private plane through the bridge, buzzed some surrounding buildings, then flew north towards the Lake District and crashed. In 1999, a Freeman of the City of London drove two sheep across the bridge as a demonstration for the rights of older citizens. And in 2003, a Fathers 4 Justice activist dressed as Spider Man climbed a nearby tower crane, resulting in the police closing Tower Bridge for five days.

So how well known is Tower Bridge? Well, they built a replica (more or less) in Suzhou China, featuring an English coffee shop.